In digging through planning codes, county reaches bone of contention

By Jason Hoppin
Posted: 09/13/2011 01:30:40 AM PDT

SANTA CRUZ — Kathy Previsich was putting a new furnace in her home when the contractor asked an odd question: Did she live in the unincorporated area of the county?

Yes, she answered, and got an odder answer, one showing the contractor had no idea Previsich headed the county Planning Department.

“He says, I was going to put in the permit fee cost, but we don’t recommend getting permits in the unincorporated area, because the minimum charge is $320,'” Previsich recalled. “My own experience with contractors and furnace people is they’re actually out there recommending that you don’t get permits in the county of Santa Cruz.”

The unnamed contractor may have to revisit his advice. For several years, the county has gradually been overhauling the county’s Byzantine planning rules, regulations and fees. And Wednesday, the Planning Commission will address a longtime sore spot that by one estimate potentially affects half the homeowners in the county — renovations to buildings that no longer comply with county codes.

“It does come up a lot, because [development] standards do change over time,” Previsich said. “Especially because we have structures that were built before 1958, when we didn’t even have a building permit or a zoning permit requirement.”

Homeowners who might want a new kitchen, to add a bedroom or even fix dry rot may have shared the tale. For so-called “nonconforming” structures — buildings that met code at the time they were built but no longer do — any change to more than half of a wall that could no longer be built under present-day codes requires the homeowner to bring the whole house up to code.

That has led to spectacular home renovations that leave old walls — walls that perhaps were too close to a property boundary — in place. Or maybe homeowners, to fix a dry rot problem, were forced to change the entire footprint of their home. Or maybe they just decided they couldn’t afford to fix the dry rot if it means tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in other changes.

The purpose of the old rules was to bring homes up to modern standards. But with the price of real estate locally, normal economic rules haven’t really applied. Instead, homeowners have just left the old structures untouched as property values soared nonetheless.

“This sense that they ought to deteriorate and go away, we think, is pretty unrealistic,” Previsich said. “[And] it’s more environmentally sustainable to allow existing buildings to remain, be improved, be maintained, be added onto in conformance with the development zoning standards, et cetera, rather than eventually taking em to the dump.”

The changes on the table for Wednesday’s discussion also involve parking standards for commercial businesses, as well as outlining when geologic reviews are required.


But most of the focus is on the county’s so-called “altered wall” rules. Though no numbers are available, Ron Powers, a land-use and development consultant, guessed that half the county’s structures are nonconforming.

“The altered wall has been really a thorn in applicants or owners, as well as the county staff, in terms of trying to administer that,” Powers said, adding that homeowners and contractors will go to great lengths to avoid triggering them. “If you’re in the middle of a remodel, you end up leaving dry-rotted wood in order to meet that.”

The proposed change would allow homeowners to avoid the costly route of seeking a variance if they want to change more than half of a nonconforming wall. Instead, staff would have discretion to approve some projects.

Previsich was hired in 2009, after a shakeup in the department. And she came in with a mandate for change, after years of frustrated business owners, homeowners and consultants complaining about the department’s heavy-handed reputation. Previsich is slowly reworking a set of codes so complex that a cottage industry has grown up around it to help homeowners and developers navigate the rules.

The fee schedule is also being reworked, with the furnace inspection fees dropping as low as $60. And Previsich said the county’s top building official now has discretion to drop other fees that don’t require lengthy inspections.

The office is also trying to be more accessible, staying open later. And it is trying to pare back requirements that aren’t specified in the code, even though they have long been county practice.

For example, the county is no longer requiring full house plans if a landowner wants to split a lot. That was the practice and meant landowners sometimes had to hire architects, even if they have no intention of building a home. But nowhere is that requirement written in the books.


Previsich said she hopes the code revisions, which apply to residential and commercial buildings alike, help foster economic development.

“If you can have a code that is clear and reduces risk and is more streamlined and less expensive, it’s more accommodating to business and job development as well,” Previsich said.

The changes are likely to spark fear among conservationists and environmentalists about fostering growth. But Powers doesn’t think that will be the outcome.

“There’s nothing in here, in my opinion, that’s growth-inducing or development-inducing,” Powers said.

Not all the changes have been received well. Tony Alameda, owner of Aptos-based Alameda Roofing Service Inc., said the county is requiring permits for each structure on a property, rather than one permit.

That has led to some bizarre situations, Alameda said. He recently had to pull three permits, at $451 each, for one job reroofing a home, garage and 162-square-foot shed. The roofing bid on the shed was just $275 — less than the cost of the permit.

But Alameda said a bigger problem is the county now requires smoke and carbon monoxide detectors inside a home before signing off on a roofing job. That can lead to roofers having to halt a job, including spending time and money to cover the roof, if homeowners — some of whom could live hundreds of miles away — don’t have the proper detectors.

“We’re not qualified to put in smoke detectors or carbon monoxide detectors,” Alameda said. “Our liability providers would go crazy if we did that.”